Democrats scored decisive victories in major elections across the country Tuesday night, overcoming the downward pull of an unpopular president, persistent inflation and growing global unrest by relying on abortion, question that has become their security since the Supreme Court overturned Roe. against Wade last year.
In elections in parts of the South and Rust Belt, Democrats made abortion rights central to their campaigns, spending tens of millions of dollars on ads highlighting Republican support for banning abortion. abortion.
Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear won a second term after repeatedly criticizing his Republican opponent for initially supporting a national abortion ban that contains no exceptions for rape or incest. In Virginia, Democrats took control of both chambers after an avalanche of abortion-focused advertising. In Pennsylvania, Democrats won a seat on the state Supreme Court, in a race that also saw a wave of abortion-related ads.
And in Ohio, a ballot measure establishing the right to abortion in the state Constitution was won by a double-digit margin, a resounding show of support for abortion rights in a conservative state that Donald J. Trump won twice by convincing margins.
The results are a resounding victory for abortion rights, proving once again that the issue can energize a broad coalition of Democrats, independents and even some moderate Republicans. As the country heads toward the 2024 presidential election, the Republican Party continues to search for an answer to an issue that has preoccupied it since the fall of Roe. Democrats, meanwhile, face a daunting question of their own, in a year where President Biden’s record, his personal brand and perceptions of his fitness to serve another term will be inescapable.
Will abortion still have enough electoral weight to overcome Mr. Biden’s policy weaknesses?
Historically, re-elections have been referendums on the incumbent president and his leaders. Democrats hope to turn the 2024 vote into something different — an election that revolves not around the current occupant of the White House but around the previous one, Mr. Trump, and his party’s embrace of abortion bans that are out of step with the majority. voters.
Democrats have already launched plans to use referendums, like the one in Ohio, as a way to energize their base in 2024. Efforts are underway to bring such measures to the ballot in key states, including Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. . For its part, Mr. Biden’s campaign released an initial ad highlighting Mr. Trump’s support for overturning Roe.
“Abortion is the No. 1 issue in the 2024 campaign,” Gov. JB Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat who has donated money to support both the Ohio vote and legislative elections in Virginia. “If you’re not talking about protecting women’s reproductive rights as a Democrat, you’re not doing it right.”
It remains unclear whether Democrats will succeed next year in their push to focus on abortion rights. The 2024 race will be the first post-Roe presidential election, plunging both parties into uncharted political territory. The political impact of abortion could be blunted by the all-consuming national debate surrounding a presidential campaign, coupled with Mr. Trump’s criminal charges and court dramas.
Democrats failed to completely sweep the election Tuesday. In Mississippi, Republican Governor Tate Reeves won re-election, defeating Brandon Presley, a self-described “pro-life” Democrat.
Still, the Biden campaign felt validated by the results, particularly in Kentucky, where it spotted millions of dollars in anti-Biden television ads. At the White House, Mr. Biden called to congratulate the evening’s winners, including Mr. Beshear and the Virginia candidates, according to two people familiar with the matter.
During his run, Mr. Beshear went to great lengths to separate himself from the president, rarely — if ever — using Mr. Biden’s name. Mr. Beshear is one of the most popular governors in the country, while Mr. Biden remains politically toxic in a state he lost by about 26 percentage points in 2020.
Tuesday’s Democratic victories marked the conclusion of a surprisingly positive election cycle for the party, with many of their candidates pushed to victory by making abortion rights an issue. They have outperformed Mr. Biden’s performance in the 2020 presidential election in 21 of 27 races this year, not including Tuesday, according to a study carried out by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm for state legislative elections. In April, Democrats surrendered majority control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court to conservatives, with their liberal candidate winning. an 11-point triumph.
Democrats argued that Tuesday night’s results showed the resonance of abortion even in some of the most conservative parts of the country. In Kentucky, Mr. Beshear spent nearly $2 million on startling ads featuring Hadley Duvall, a young woman who said she was raped by her stepfather when she was 12 years old. Ms. Duvall was one of the first people Mr. Beshear thanked during his victory. speech Tuesday evening.
In Ohio, a state Mr. Trump won by eight points in 2020, abortion rights organizations raised three times as many donations as their anti-abortion opponents to defeat a grassroots-backed effort. highest ranks of the state Republican Party. Support for the abortion rights measure was significantly higher than that for the Democratic Senate candidate last year, particularly in suburban counties surrounding Columbus and Cleveland. The results will almost certainly force the state Supreme Court to strike down a six-week ban with limited exceptions passed in 2019.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision, Republicans have searched in vain for an effective message on abortion.
For nearly half a century, Republican candidates simply proclaimed themselves “pro-life,” without going into detail about what that meant. But the overturning of Roe plunged the party into a complicated debate over unpopular issues around rape, miscarriages and terminal fetal diagnoses. An attempt to introduce a 15-week federal ban in the Senate backfired for the party in the midterm elections, quickly becoming a stick for Democrats in key races.
Virginia offered a new test as Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, proactively sought to define his party’s position as a 15-week “common sense” ban – with exceptions in cases of rape and of incest – and instead portrayed Democrats as extremists. . State Republicans attempted to change the language of the debate, reclassifying what is commonly called a ban into a “reasonable 15-week limit.” But his party failed to take power in the state Senate and lost control of the House of Delegates.
“The 15-week system doesn’t work because voters don’t want an abortion ban,” said Heather Williams, interim chairwoman of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which has invested heavily in Virginia. “You can’t change this language now.”
Even some Republicans acknowledged that their party had failed to craft a message that would soften the impact of Democratic attacks on abortion.
Vivek Ramaswamy, the Republican presidential candidate who lives in suburban Columbus and voted against the Ohio measure, said the referendum was a “losing battle.”
“Our pro-life movement, and I’m part of it, needs to be better in the way we discuss this issue,” Mr. Ramaswamy said on CNN Tuesday evening. “There are deep thoughts within the Republican Party and the pro-life movement about how to improve from here. »
Democratic leaders and candidates face significant obstacles in keeping their campaign promises. Mr. Biden has promised to restore the federal right to abortion by codifying Roe. Passing such legislation would require winning 60 votes in the Senate or ending the filibuster, which currently appears unlikely. Mr. Beshear in Kentucky now faces a Republican majority in the state, which will limit his power to legalize abortion in a state with a near-total ban.
Mr. Biden — a practicing Catholic whose position on abortion has evolved with his party — has often appeared personally reluctant to directly discuss abortion rights. He appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to be the administration’s leading voice on abortion, focusing her attention on foreign policy and the economy. On Tuesday, a Biden campaign statement on the election did not use the word abortion, instead calling the issue one of “personal liberties.”
For his part, Mr. Trump has blamed his party’s 2022 losses on abortion and has taken an intentionally ambiguous stance, refusing so far to settle on a specific weekly limit.
Overall, Mr. Biden and the Democrats are faring better on the issue of abortion rights than their Republican opponents. More registered voters said they trusted Mr. Biden to do a better job on abortion rights than Mr. Trump, according to a recent New York Times and Siena College poll. Yet the survey also indicates that some voters who support abortion rights would consider voting for Mr. Trump. Among voters who said they want abortion to be “mostly legal,” Mr. Trump is nearly tied, and a third of them said they trust Mr. Trump more than Mr. Biden in matters of abortion.
Democratic strategists say they have plenty of evidence that could hurt Mr. Trump on the abortion issue. Not only did he name the three Supreme Court justices who provided the critical votes to overturn Roe, but he has a history of making inflammatory comments on the issue.
“These races put to rest the claim that these red states are all in Trump’s camp — that there is no nuance,” said Pat Dennis, president of American Bridge, the Trump news center. Democratic Party for Opposition Research. “Trump has an extraordinary weakness here.”
Ruth Igielnik reports contributed.